The defining trope across vampire mythologies is that these ageless and immortal creatures of the night must live off the blood of the living. The other, significant trope—in the vampire movies, at least—is that the human victims are mostly young. Now, if it is just blood that a vampire needs, why should the age of the victim make any difference? Coincidental as Hollywood’s choice of vampire victims could be, young blood offers a lot more. Research says so.
Findings of a new study, published in Nature, show that a protein found in young human blood plasma improves brain function in mice. TIMP2, extracted from cord plasma of newborns, improved the ability of old mice to navigate mazes; they even learned to avoid areas of their cages that delivered painful electrical shocks. Though scientists have been studying the effect of young blood on ageing in the animals for some decades now via mouse-to-mouse transfers, this is the first time a human protein has been demonstrated to reverse the effects of age on the brain of mice. The earlier mice studies had encouraged clinical trials where elderly test subjects blood received blood from young adult donors and tested for physical improvements.
Tony Wyss-Coray, a Stanford University neuroscientist associated with one of the companeis conducting such a trial, and his colleague, Joseph Castellano, ran tests on mice infused with plasma from cord blood and isolated TIMP2. Upon dissecting the brains of plasma-treated mice, they found that those from subjects that had received the human cord blood plasma had gene expressions in the hippocampus—the region of the brain associated with memory and learning—that caused neurons to form more connections, while this did not happen for the specimen that received plasma from older human donors.
Wyss-Coray and Castellano compared the 66 proteins found in human umbilical cord blood with those found in plasma from older humans and those from plasma in parabiosis experiments—in which an older mouse and a younger one are surgically conjoined to share the same circulatory system. The researchers identified TIMP2’s role in a process of elimination—each single protein identified was injected into veins of mice and the memory experiment conducted. Though TIMP2 doesn’t cause the regeneration of neurons already lost because of ageing, the scientists believe that the protein, that regulates cell and tissue structure, could be a “master regulator” of genes involved in growth and repair of cells and tweaking its levels could help manipulate many pathways sat the same time.
While research needs to detail TIMP2’s functions and chart out how exactly it causes the reversing of age-related neural degeneration, the finding itself throws up thrilling promises. What if plasma pooled from donors could one day be the cure for neurodegenerative disorders like Parkinson’s, dementia, Alzheimer’s, etc? That’s still some way, given exhaustive studies need to be conducted to determine hitherto hidden effects. A Harvard research from 2013 linked the reduction of hardening of cardiac muscles—this causes poor blood-pumping—in older mice receiving young blood to a blood hormone called Growth Determining Factor (GDF) 11. But, in 2015, researchers at the Novartis Institute for Biomedical Research contended that GDF 11’s function was the exact opposite—it prevented stem cells from maturing into cardiac cells—and demonstrated that GDF 11 levels went up with ageing in mice.
Though the Harvard researchers stand by their study, pointing at the departures from their experiments in the Novartis research, it is not fully clear what role GDF 11 or perhaps a form of it plays in ageing. At the same time, the manifest difference stem cells from cord blood make in many neurodegenerative diseases could be hiding a clue or two. For now, it is neither entirely silly nor entirely wise to consider young blood the literal fountain of youth. Till real-life research delivers a surer answer, you could grab some popcorn and watch Nosferatu/Dracula/Lestat cling on to life after death, and possibly youth, in reel life.